By Adam Balinski
Updated: April 11, 2020
*Update: Much has changed since this was posted almost a month ago. Some states have cancelled or postponed the July bar exam. Others are still deliberating. At this point, with the almost constant evolution, you should check with your individual state bar directly for the latest information. The NCBE website also contains helpful information.
Don’t freak out just yet
There is much speculation and little certainty regarding how the coronavirus (COVID-19) could cause chaos when it comes to the July 2020 bar exam. As of today (Mar. 18), the July bar exam is still over 130 days away. That means much will change when it comes to the coronavirus.
For some perspective, we’re less than 90 days out from the beginning of the outbreak in China, and thankfully, the spread there has slowed significantly, travel bans there are being lifted, and life appears to be returning to at least semi-normal there.
Here in the United States, we’re less than two months out from the start of the spread, and though our response has not been as hardcore as our Chinese friends, our government leaders have taken serious measures to limit the surge. It is plausible that 130 days from now, groups of 10, 50, 100, or even 250 may no longer be discouraged in the United States. Let’s hope and pray that is the case.
What we do know
Like every other year, the bar exam will be administered state by state. That means it will ultimately be each state’s judgment call whether to cancel or postpone the July 2020 bar exam, attempt virtual administration, proceed with protective measures, or proceed like normal. That said, for almost every state, there will likely be guardrails imposed by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), which creates the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE) (administered in every state but Louisiana) and the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE) (administered in 33 states). The NCBE will be concerned about fairness and safety across state lines.
The NCBE has its own sub-page devoted entirely to keeping bar exam takers and state administrators up to date on how coronavirus is affecting its operations. If you’re preparing to take the bar exam this summer in a state that has adopted the UBE, you should definitely bookmark the NCBE’s coronavirus page, plus any similar pages your state bar puts together. A statement from the NCBE coronavirus page reads: “NCBE continues to monitor the coronavirus (COVID-19) situation closely. The health and safety of bar applicants . . . and volunteers are of paramount importance[.]”
Here’s some specific good news from the NCBE on that page:
- February’s MBE results should not be bottlenecked by the NCBE. (Though that’s a good sign, it doesn’t guarantee that February bar exam results won’t be delayed; individual states may be delayed in their efforts to score the written portions of the bar exam.)
- April 9 is still the target date for March Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) scores to be released.
- The summer MPRE administration is still set for August 11 and 12.
- All NCBE services are still fully functioning.
Some personal speculation
Canceled or postponed? I am optimistic that the July 2020 bar exam will not be canceled or even postponed by any state. Again, we’re 130+ days away from the exam.
Take the test at home? Virtual administration seems unlikely. States would need to figure out a reliable way to eliminate cheating. Computer functionality would need to be locked down during the exam. Maybe bar applicants would have to turn on their webcams and record the audio and video of their experience taking the exam (those would be terrible videos for anyone to have to watch…). Maybe there would need to be a third-party witness, like a spouse or roommate, who signed an affidavit stating that test takers didn’t cheat. But even with creative controls like the above, I think it would be hard to create the same level of protection against cheating at home that you can create at a testing center. For that reason, I think virtual administration is quite unlikely. But I could be wrong.
Proceed with safety measures? This seems most likely. Even if the coronavirus has tapered off significantly, I still foresee hand sanitizer and Lysol galore. I imagine states booking larger venues where they can provide more spread out seating. Anyone with even a hint of a cough in the last few weeks might have to wear a face mask. Bar applicants over 60 years old or who are at special risk for other reasons might be provided respirators or even a private room. Obviously, I am just guessing here. I don’t know any of this for sure. But I do believe states will be exploring protections like that.
Proceed like normal? It would be amazing if we could get that level of safety and confidence back. But let’s be real, I think we’ll have to settle for semi-normal or some type of new normal.